A contentious debate at Patrick Henry College that began over theological differences, the interpretation of Scripture, and academic freedom has prompted 5 of the school's 16 full-time faculty members to announce they will not be returning to the conservative, Christian college next year. The announcements bring the total number of departing professors to nine in the past year, not including two adjuncts, as well as four senior executives who left in the past 18 months, departing professors say.

In the wake of the departures, the school announced significant changes to the school's executive staff. Effective July 1, Graham Walker, previously vice president for academic affairs and dean of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, will replace Farris as president, while Farris will assume the college's chancellor position. Gene Edward Veith, currently the cultural editor of World Magazine and a former English professor, will also begin that day as the college's new academic dean.

Founded with the high hopes of becoming an "evangelical Ivy League" institution dedicated to producing the next generation of Christian politicians and leaders, the Northern Virginia-based college in Purcellville has received national attention for its conservative Christian theology and mission. It draws a majority of its students from home-schooling families.

Michael Farris, a constitutional lawyer and general counsel of the Home School Legal Defense Association, founded the school in 2000 as a "Christian college blending classical instruction with apprenticeship methodology." It prides itself on the high number of White House internships secured by its students, whose SAT scores average over 1300.

"We were brought here on false pretenses," said David Noe, assistant professor of classics who has taught at Patrick Henry since its founding. "We are leaving due to a long train of abuses by Farris in violating both academic freedom and due process, as well as many other issues relating to Farris's running of the college."

Departing professors also cite Farris's treatment of government instructor Erik Root and his March firing of Robert Stacey, the chairman of the college's department of government, as additional reasons that confirmed their decisions to leave the 350-student college.

Noe, Root, and rhetoric and theology professor Todd Bates agreed to go public with Christianity Today earlier this month, they said, after Farris repeatedly denied their requests to respond to accusations that beliefs they had expressed were biblically unsound. "Farris said that we threatened the college's fidelity to its mission and vision," said Noe. "He spoke to the press, but told us we couldn't."

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Farris did not respond to multiple requests by CT for an interview, but told The Chronicle of Higher Education that he wonders why the professors are still leaving now that he is no longer president. "If I'm the problem—well, I'm going to be gone," he said.

Walker, the new president, told CT the high faculty turnover in one year was regrettable. "These gentlemen made good contributions to the growth of the college," said Walker. "It's regrettable to lose them. I also know that turnover is a fact of life at every collegiate institution."

The Lifeboat

The debate reached a head when Root published an article entitled "Of St. Augustine, the Teacher, and Politics" in the campus publication The Source. The piece argued that St. Augustine "deserves to be called a Saint because he was instrumental in making political philosophy palpable to Christians and vice versa. … [He] taught Christians how to engage the culture around them."

Soon after its publication, Root learned his contract was being "temporarily withdrawn" based on the article as well as a complaint from a student's parent over his use of the "lifeboat example" in class. Root said the illustration was used to explain Thomas Hobbes's state of nature argument. "Acting academic dean [Marian Sanders] told me I couldn't use that any more," said Root. "She said that there are some questions we can't ask in class or entertain."

In a February 28 e-mail message, Farris asked Root to respond to seven "questions."

"The overall question is the fidelity to the biblical worldview in your role at PHC," stated Farris. The letter claimed "the well-known 'lifeboat' game" was "a recognized tool of those who wish to contend that there are no absolute values." It further asked for an "explanation about this episode and the underlying philosophy that this represents."

"I thought it was an academic freedom issue," said Root, adding that he did not respond to Farris's questions as his contract had already been pulled.

In March, five professors resolved not to sign their contracts for the following year based largely on Root's suspended contract.  The decision stemmed from a previous agreement nine professors made last fall, said Noe. "Many of us, including the five of us who left, made an informal agreement to do everything to defend anyone who was wrongly terminated, including leaving."

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Among them were Root, Noe, Bates, Stacey, and history and literature professor Kevin Culberson, and Robert Stacey. "The gravity of this decision is underscored by the fact that, at the time, only one of us had a job lined up for next year," said Culberson.

General revelation

On March 8 another Source article, this one by Noe and Culberson entitled "The Role of General Revelation in Education," again prompted the administration's response. 

"A common misconception among American evangelicals, and one that cannot be supported by the Scriptures themselves, is that the Bible is the only source of truth," the article began. "We argue that this misconception amounts to a blasphemous denial of Christ's words in Matthew 5 that 'he sends rain on the just and the unjust.'"

The 900-word article argued that "a Christian must refuse to view special and general revelation as hostile to one another. Nor should he hesitate to learn from a pagan. There is much wisdom to be gained from Parmenides and Plato, as well Machiavelli and Marx." 

The article prompted a 2,600-word response by college chaplain Raymond Bouchoc, sent to students, faculty, and staff. The response, endorsed by Farris and Sanders, discussed seven "harmful implications" that could be drawn from the professors' article and claimed the piece "diminishes the import of Scripture."

The official response prompted Noe, Root, Culberson, Stacey, and, later, Bates to turn in letters of non-intent stating they would not be signing their contracts for the following school year. The next day, in a March 17 "Q&A" with the campus newspaper, The Patrick Henry Herald, Farris said the resigning professors "quit because the leadership utilized academic freedom. If somebody wants to quit because they believe we have too strong of a view of the Bible, then so be it. I believe God's going to bless us for standing up for his Word."

"For the president to say this implies that these men were somehow guilty of blasphemies or heresy," said Paul Bonicelli, PHC's former dean of academic affairs and government professor. "That's not something any Christian should say about another Christian unless you are absolutely sure they have uttered blasphemies or heresy, and we are terribly far away from that here."

Scriptural fidelity

Farris again took aim at the professors in a March 23 letter to the parents of current students. "Some of their teaching and on-campus publications raised what I believed were legitimate questions about fidelity to the Scriptures," the letter stated.

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"Two of us are ordained in conservative denominations, and the notion that we have a low view of Scripture shouldn't in fact be tolerated without evidence," said Noe, who is ordained as a ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and preaches in nearby churches. Culberson is ordained as a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. "There is a strong sense that the charges made against us and our Christian beliefs have detrimental ramifications in our respective churches." 

Noe and Root said Farris repeatedly denied requests to respond to the public charges. "He accused us of being less than Christian, then told us we couldn't respond," said Noe. 

Stacey's firing

Amid the controversy, on March 31 Stacey read the school's statement of faith aloud in his class and asked students to decide if he had been unfaithful to it. If they agreed, they could leave. "He said, if you think I have an unbiblical worldview, you shouldn't be listening to me," said one student. Another student then immediately left the classroom to report the comments to Farris, multiple sources confirmed.

"At 2 p.m., Farris cut Bob's phone and e-mail while he was in class," said Noe. "Then he called him to a 4 p.m. meeting where he fired him. He told him he had until 8:45 a.m. the next morning to apologize and recant; otherwise he'd lose his job. What Bob did in class was attempt to publicly address this after repeated requests to the president, and when he did he was fired. … We believe that Bob's firing was Farris's attempt to keep us quiet."

Farris told reporters that he fired Stacey because "he asked students to take sides."

The gag order

On April 5, professors Noe, Culberson, and Root received a written response from Farris declaring that it would be "unprofessional and unchristian" to publicly declare their reasons for leaving.

"A public declaration would serve only your personal purposes to appear to be vindicated in the eyes of the students," he said.  "That is an unprofessional and unchristian motive.  … In short, no, you do not have my permission to publicly discuss your reasons for departure."

The professors then asked in a reply if Farris would make the gag order public "so that [students] can understand why we may not answer their questions, though they continue to ask us with much anguish and sometimes suspicion."

In an abrupt turnaround on April 7, Farris sent an e-mail  to faculty, staff, and students, stating that previous press statements he had made about the professors' departure "did not fully reveal my heart."

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"There is no doubt in my mind that all the professors, past and present, at PHC are sincere born-again believers who truly embrace the college's statement of faith," he said. "Moreover, I believe they have a sincere desire to honor the Bible as God's authoritative Word."

St. Augustine in Hell

According to the school's statement of doctrinal neutrality, Patrick Henry College "welcomes all people who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ" and "does not take sides on certain doctrinal matters that often separate … believers." The statement reads: "The College itself is neutral on the doctrinal distinctives which go beyond the points covered in our Statement of Faith and are outside the mission of the College."

Farris, a Baptist minister, has publicly expressed views that have shocked some professors and students.

"He said St. Augustine was in hell," said Root. "I heard it with my own ears." Other professors and students said Farris has repeatedly disparaged Calvinist theology.

"There is a sense that you face antagonism as someone who is theologically Reformed," said Bates, who sparred with Farris over a speech he was planning to deliver at the college's annual Faith and Reason Lecture, and again over the use of Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology textbook. According to Bates, Farris considered it "too Reformed."

"We are put in a hard position," said Bates. "We're told this is an open dialogue, but if you engage in open dialogue, you're in trouble. It's infuriating because you're an academic and want to engage in ideas."

Bates said that at a meeting with Farris, "He told me that a person of the Reformed position to which I hold cannot in good conscience sign the statement of faith. When I responded that I failed to see the discrepancy between the two, he replied, 'I define the statement of faith.'"

A new direction?

In an interview with CT, incoming president Walker spoke glowingly of the college's commitment to academic freedom. "We at PHC are not afraid of learning at any time because the facts are always on God's side," said Walker. "Our knowledge of error is important, so certain subjects being out of bounds is just not so." Walker said that he and Farris "welcome disagreement. It's part of the richness of an academic institution."

The large number of departures could impact the college's accreditation if changes are not made and positions filled.  The Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS) is currently considering the college for accreditation.

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Due to the young college's unaccredited status, students who leave the school may not be able to transfer their credits. Under Virginia law, the school has until November of 2007 to become accredited or risk losing the right to call itself a degree-granting college. Patrick Henry has so far sought accreditation from the American Academy for Liberal Education and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, but was denied. While it could still re-apply, the college is currently exclusively pursuing TRACS, according to its website.

Professors interviewed for this article said it was not revenge, but rather their commitment to the college's liberal arts vision that compelled them to go public.

Said Noe, "It seems to us that only public scrutiny will make this institution healthy."

Related Elsewhere:

Other coverage of the faculty departures includes:

A clash of ideas at evangelical college | Five of Patrick Henry's 16 faculty members leave over its mission and curriculum (Los Angeles Times, May 13)
Debating the fundamentals | Professors leave PHC in rift (Leesburg Today, Va., May 12)
5 departures on Patrick Henry faculty pose question: Are Christianity and Liberal Arts contradictory missions? (The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 12, sub. req'd.)
Professors to leave Patrick Henry (Leesburg Today, Va., Mar. 23)

Earlier media coverage of Patrick Henry College includes:

God and country | A college that trains young Christians to be politicians. (The New Yorker, June 27, 2005)
The students of Patrick Henry College | Higher education for the Christian Right in the Evangelical Ivy League (On Point, NPR, Apr. 19, 2006)
Divide on doctrine fuels fight between Va. college, ousted clerk | Jeremy Hunley was forced to resign from Patrick Henry College because his belief that baptism is necessary for salvation contradicted school doctrine (The Washington Post, Aug. 8, 2005)
Educating America's Christian Right (BBC, Mar. 2, 2005)
College for the home-schooled is shaping leaders for the Right (The New York Times, Mar. 8, 2004)
A curriculum of faith (Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, PBS, Apr. 27, 2001)

Earlier Christianity Today coverage of Patrick Henry includes:

Arguing for God | Christian college debaters hope to change the world—but first to beat the competition (Apr. 21, 2006)
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Weblog: The New York Times Examines a Tech School for Conservative Politics | Patrick Henry College is still small and unaccredited, but is becoming increasingly prominent in Washington (Mar. 8, 2004)
Weblog: Patrick Henry College Gains Pre-Accreditation | School rewrites Statement of Biblical Worldview (Nov. 15, 2002)
Christian College Denied Accreditation | Agency troubled that Patrick Henry College teaches creationism in biology classes (July 1, 2002)
Give Us Liberty | Secular educators have it backward: Faith statements promote academic freedom. A Christianity Today editorial (July 1, 2002)
Weblog: Accreditor Says Creationism Mandate Violates Academic Freedom | Patrick Henry College denied accreditation because of creationism (May 15,2002)

The Patrick Henry College website has more information about the new president and academic dean.

The anonymous SaveRoot.com site calls on students to act on behalf of the departing professors.

Several Patrick Henry students operate blogs.